Theatre Interlude: Eric and Little Ern

1 Feb

EricandLittleErn

This show originated at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 and is now combining a West End run in London (at the Vaudeville Theatre, Sundays only now until March) with a national tour.  I caught it at Northampton’s Royal Theatre and its intimate Victorian auditorium which is just the right sort of venue for this performance.

It’s a two-person piece, created by Ian Ashpitel (who plays Ernie Wise) and Jonty Stephens (who plays Eric Morecambe), telling a little of the back-story of  this much-loved British double-act of comedians and recreating some of their material.  Morecambe and Wise were child performers who built their career as a double act immediately after the second world war and were massively popular together on television  in the 1970s and early eighties until the premature death of Eric Morecambe.

The play’s starting point is  1999, when Ernie Wise was in hospital and on the verge of death following the same heart problems which had killed his partner in 1984.  From this (true) premise, the show imagines the white-coated figure with a stethoscope entering the room to be Eric, come to revive their association.  It sounds a pretty hackneyed devise – but it works – in a touching way – because the two men had such a close professional partnership for so long that, in truth, it was and is difficult to think of them apart.  It also allows the actors to fill in the audience and orientate them with the back-story while getting the characters to  repeat some familiar lines and reminisce about the relationship which led so many people to hold them in such affection.  It’s not deeply psychological stuff with new insights but it does prompt the audience to reflect on how the two men complemented each other so well that they could work together for nearly forty years without splits or significant solo excursions.

It succeeds in this because the creators were permitted to draw on the material produced for Morecambe and Wise by their scriptwriters (at different periods) Eddie Braben and also Dick Hills  & Sid Green. This meant that the play could use some of the jokes, catchphrases and parts of  routines with which this (largely mature) audience was familiar.  The whole thing could not have worked however without the performers’ absolutely remarkable skill in capturing the physical presence, mannerisms and comic timing of the original Morecambe and Wise . This really was impressive acting from two performers whose track records have been more in supporting roles than as leads or ‘stars’.

The second half of the evening comprised a run-through of elements from many of the duo’s famous ‘front of curtain’ sequences and if you remember the originals, you’ll appreciate the tribute meant when I write that ‘you can’t see the join’ between new material and old!

Morecambe and Wise were loved by their audiences and this is a skillful, warm-hearted and affectionate tribute.

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